Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Sunday, January 21, 2007


Occasionally, students will ask me where the “poetry” can be found in contemporary free verse poems that to them appear merely first-person prose monologues fractured on the page. In reply, I pull out a copy of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.” I ask them to read just the opening and closing lines as if they were a single statement: “I caught a tremendous fish . . . And I let the fish go.” That alone may be prose, I will concede, but everything in the nearly seventy-five lines between defines poetry—the precise imagery, the description that involves all five senses, the similes and metaphors, the personification, the rhythm of the lines, the selected line breaks, the smooth movement proceeding through the poem, the speaker’s tone, the word choice and connotations, the alliteration and incidents of internal rhyme, the uncertainty and sense of suspense, etc.

At one point while reading Dorianne Laux’s Facts About the Moon I was reminded of that exercise I try with my students. Midway through the collection, Laux presents “Her First,” a poem that includes the following opening and closing lines: “Who remembers when she told me”; “I remember now.” Between those two plain statements, the first almost a question to which the second seemingly responds, Laux provides more than forty lines of fine poetry in which the speaker recalls a narrative about a new nurse (the speaker’s mother) and her first experience with a dying patient. As in the natural process of memory and imagination, the event unfolds through a fluid sequence of associations linked with images. In an extended metaphor, the poet focuses closely on the eye contact maintained during the incident. About ten times in the course of the commentary, the poet refers to the ways the pair see one another, particularly how the mother “never looked away” and held “a direct gaze” even “as she watched over / the last minutes of his anonymous life,” the patient’s “death fluttering down / under the soft black wings of his lashes.” As the conceit continues, despite “the institutional gray walls,” the speaker seems pleased “the last color / he would see” with his “rust-colored eyes” was “the sea-blue corona / of her eyes, irises spiked with amber.” For the duration of this piece, the flow of the poem and the depth of its poetic effects are as unmistakable as those catalogued with Bishop’s “The Fish.”

Likewise, throughout most of the poems in this collection, Dorianne Laux’s deceptively subtle poetic voice carries readers from beginning images to final lines with a satisfying language that interestingly combines intimate personal reflection and a remarkable narrative account of oftentimes ordinary activities or everyday episodes resulting in an extraordinarily gratifying conclusion that provokes further contemplation long after the last word of the poem. In “The Lost” Laux starts by describing a past relationship the speaker had deemed a casual romance. She regards the night she slept with “one of those back-then boys” as nothing but a “transient sweetness.” However, from that phrase through most of the poem, as the pronoun shifts from “he” to “they,” readers are entertained by an inventory of characteristics the speaker adored and cherished in “the sheer variety” of other lovers she has known over the years. Yet, the woman brings an abrupt end to the multiple memories when she reports a surprise phone call she received from the young man’s boss summoning her to the hospital after a work accident, and “the torn stumps of his fingers” on an “unbandaged hand” confront her, she who was “the last to have touched him whole.”

Repeatedly, Laux presents such narrative patterns of personal poetry that reflect the influence of Philip Levine and Sharon Olds, both of whom receive a mention in the content of “Savages,” a wonderful work that describes an insatiable love for poetry in primitive descriptions reminiscent of Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry.” As with most memorable poems, in Laux’s poetry the path on which readers are led as they journey from the beginning of the work to the last image is as enjoyable and as enlightening as the final lines that provide clever closure to the poem. Usually written as soliloquies in a clear and conversational voice some might suggest contains prose qualities, Laux’s poems invite readers in for a speaker’s intimate glimpse at the world around her. Indeed, the prose-like feel in some of the poems may enhance their properties of authority and veracity since any aura of artifice is diminished. Each poem’s success depends upon the presence of an intelligent and intuitive perspective promoted by the poet’s persona. Dorianne Laux’s speakers continually exhibit more than a bit of wisdom, often combined with witty or inventive language as well as an authentic and assured sense of self.

In “Superglue” the poet engages in an extended meditation on the actual process of childbirth and one’s eventual assumption of a series of lifelong adventures by bonding those topics with an instance in which the speaker accidentally glues together two fingers: “I’d forgotten how fast it happens, the blush of fear / and the feeling of helpless infantile stupidity….” The poet transitions with a slick switch in the center of attention to her own birth: “This is how I began inside / my mother’s belly, before I divided toe from toe….” In short order, by the close of the poem, the persona confides her desire perhaps to complete a cycle of life by approaching her husband, wanting “to climb him, / stuff him inside me and fill that space, poised / on the brink of opening opening opening / as my wrinkled fingers, pale and slippery, / remember themselves, and part.”

Perhaps because of my own many misspent years in Brooklyn pool halls, I’m amused by the portrayal of a young woman who ventures into the masculine surroundings in “Poolhall”: “She leans over the felt, her pelvis / grazing the sheened maple rubbed / to a gloss by the musky oils / of men’s naked forearms.” The female’s sensuality becomes a focus for the men, who are “in love with the way / she sways and sings to the cuts / on the jukebox.” Rather than perceived as an unwanted interloper in this male atmosphere, she is secretly seen by the men as a wanted sexual attraction; though the men “pretend they don’t see her” whenever she arrives, and they distract themselves by “counting toothpicks and quarters,” they’re also “counting their lucky stars.”

With the rare exception of a few poems written with a more distant perspective or less intimate voice that are admirable in their intent, but to me appear not quite as persuasive in their presentation or may even seem slightly forced (such as “Democracy” and “For Matthew Shepard”), Dorianne Laux’s Facts About the Moon delivers consistently pleasing and fulfilling poems readers will find both entertaining and enriching. Most seem like jigsaw puzzles put together by the poet as we watch, each piece fit in place by a perfectly positioned pithy phrase or needed detail until, as occurs in “Puzzle Dust,” the speaker seems to realize “it all, at last, makes sense, a vast / satisfaction fills me.”

As happens in the collection’s title poem, Laux frequently transforms through her vivid imagination an observed act or a noted fact, perhaps that the moon is moving away from Earth “an inch and a half each year,” into a series of intimate associations by the poem’s persona, ushering readers to unexpected areas that may be amusing (“The Idea of Housework”), tragic (“My Brother’s Grave”), elegiac (“The Birthday Party”), or even shocking (“It Must Have Been Summer”). Though one can be confident the result will be rewarding, it is this uncertainty of outcome that creates a deceptively ambiguous tone with surprising mystery and unusual suspense in works with such seemingly ordinary subjects, drawing readers toward Dorianne Laux’s poetry so that they respond as her speaker in the title poem does when she conveys the power of an illuminated moon: “you know when you see it, / you can feel its lunar strength, its brutal pull.” The next time my students ask how the “poetry” can be identified in such works, maybe I’ll reply by quoting those two lines, and I will propose they read Laux’s poems.

Laux, Dorianne. Facts About the Moon. W.W. Norton, 2006.

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